Public Release: 

UCLA professor awarded major DOE grant to apply mathematics to plasma physics

University of California - Los Angeles

UCLA mathematics professor Russel Caflisch has been awarded $630,000 by the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science to apply sophisticated mathematics to complex problems in plasma physics.

"I hope our research will contribute to controlled fusion reactors for energy sources," said Caflisch, who is also a professor of materials science and engineering, and serves as a trustee of UCLA's Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics.

An applied mathematician who has conducted research on nanotechnology and computational finance, Caflisch and his research team will develop algorithms to solve plasma physics problems. The research is funded under the Office of Science's "Multiscale Mathematics" program. This program addresses those science problems that span many time scales -- from femtoseconds to years -- and many length scales -- from the atomic level to the macroscopic.

"Computer simulations on even the most powerful present-day computers cannot handle these scientific problems, so new mathematics is needed," said Raymond L. Orbach, director of the DOE's Office of Science. "This research has very practical applications and will help to solve some of our most complex energy and environmental problems."

In experiments that last but a hundred-millionth of a second, physicists are learning the secrets of plasma -- the turbulent, hot, ionized, gas-like matter that may help us destroy toxic waste and chemical and biological weapons, and perhaps help generate clean and virtually unlimited energy through fusion.

In nuclear fusion, atoms collide inside a reactor at extremely high temperature and pressure, releasing energy that can be harnessed to produce electricity. The sun is powered by fusion reactions taking place in its hot dense core. Fusion is a nearly limitless energy source, which may be how electricity will be produced in the future.

A viable fusion power plant requires an understanding of how plasma behaves. Plasma is a turbulent, hot, ionized, gas-like matter that is believed to make up more than 99 percent of the visible universe, including the sun, the stars, galaxies and the vast majority of the solar system. Plasma is a fourth state of matter, distinct from solids, liquids and gases, in which electrons have been stripped away to leave positively charged atoms or molecules. The Earth is too cold for plasmas to exist here naturally.

Plasmas could have many practical uses, including plasma torches that cut through steel like butter, weigh no more than a pencil and may eventually be used to destroy toxic waste; devices that instantly destroy chemical and biological weapons; and devices into which garbage can be thrown and recycled.

Much about plasmas and how they behave remain very poorly understood.

"Mathematically describing and simulating the behavior of a plasma has been an enormous challenge," said Caflisch, also a member of the California NanoSystems Institute. "I am hopeful our research might be useful in making progress in this regard."

Plasmas are very odd. Remarkably, the temperature in a plasma within a magnetic field can differ tremendously in different directions.

Caflisch's plasma research is interdisciplinary, involving physics and engineering, as well as mathematics. The funds will enable him to hire postdoctoral scholars, as well as graduate students and undergraduates, who will collaborate on the research. He will work with researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, as well as UCLA.

UCLA runs a DOE-funded Fusion Science Center, called the Center for Multiscale Plasma Dynamics, along with the University of Maryland. The center is contributing to our understanding of plasma physics, and the quest for fusion.

"Plasma physics has been a traditional strength at UCLA," said Physical Sciences Dean Tony Chan. He noted that UCLA's Basic Plasma Science Facility, federally funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, is the country's first national research facility for scientists worldwide to study the mysterious properties of plasma, and a world-class facility.

Under the Department of Energy's Office of Science "Multiscale Mathematics" program, researchers will use mathematics to help solve problems such as the production of clean energy, pollution cleanup, manufacturing ever smaller computer chips, and making new nanomaterials.

DOE announced 13 major research awards to 17 universities and eight DOE national laboratories.

The multiscale mathematics program seeks to help break through the current barriers in understanding complex physical processes that occur on a wide range of interacting length and time scales. The current state-of-the-science in the theory and modeling of complex physical systems generally requires that the physical phenomena being modeled either occur at a single scale, or widely separated scales with little or no interaction.

Complex physical systems frequently involve interactions among many phenomena at many different scales. Increases in computational power over the last decade have enabled scientists to begin creating sophisticated models with fewer simplifying assumptions. For these new models to succeed, researchers will need a deeper understanding of the mathematics of phenomena at multiple scales and how they interact.

DOE's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the nation.



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